Antique Collecting

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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

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Antique Collecting: Caveat Emptor

One of the most recognizable Latin expressions is “caveat emptor.” It translates to “buyer beware” and has been used in a variety of situations to express a simple idea--anyone making a purchase should be sure to be well-informed so that they suffer in a bad deal.

We often hear the expression used today to refer to situations where a great deal of money may be on the line with no real guarantee associated with it. For instance, the purchase of a car or other expensive item on an “as is” basis may warrant a cry of “caveat emptor.” Another area in which the old adage is well-suited is antique buying.

When one buys an antique, they generally make the purchase on an “as is” basis. This means they are making the purchase with no opportunity for exchange or return. The item is handed over in its existing condition and no additional guarantee or warranty is offered. This puts an exceptional burden on the buyer to make sure he or she understands exactly what is being acquired.

Why is this uniquely applicable to antiques? There are a few reasons.

First, in the realm of antique collectibles, condition is a primary factor in determining an item’s value. Thus, a chipped, dented or scratched antique may be worth considerably less than a model in better condition. Buyers must closely examine the antique to make sure its condition is sufficient to justify the asking price.

Second, originality is a highly valued characteristic of antiques. Thus, items that have been repaired or refinished may not carry nearly the value of a wholly original piece. Buyers must inspect antique buys carefully to make sure that nothing has been done to modify the original. If signs of repair or renovation are apparent, the buyer must know how those actions will impact the piece’s value.

Third, although the antique world is populated primarily by honest and trustworthy people, there is always a risk of receiving a phony or otherwise non-genuine item. Sometimes the sale of a bogus piece is an intentional act by a nefarious vendor. More often, however, it happens as the result of ignorance. Many reproductions can be quite compelling to the untrained eye, for instance. Buyers need to be knowledgeable about the kinds of antiques for which they are shopping and should be trained to spot imitations when possible.

These three elements of antique buying make the “caveat emptor” mantra an apt warning for collectors. With so much risk in the marketplace, what can an antique collector do?

First, they must learn techniques for spotting repair work and imitation products. Buyers should understand how to use long wave black lights and other tools to spot bad products.

Second, buyers should learn all they can about grading the quality of an antique’s condition. They should not take a vendor’s word that the antique in front of them is “in great shape.” They must, instead, know what kind of wear is acceptable and what types of damage will destroy a particular antique’s value.

Third, buyers should seek all available information about the antiques in which they are interested. They should strive to become experts on the antiques. A strong knowledge base will prevent many poor purchasing decisions. As an added benefit, those who are learning more about antiques in which they are truly interested generally find the research and learning process enjoyable.

This is a great advantage to the antique collecting hobby--the “work” involved can be perceived by the collector as a fun and enjoyable part of the hobby experience.

Even expert museum curators are occasionally fooled by clever reproductions. The most astute collectors sometimes make buying errors or fail to notice something about an antique they should have. Buying antique collectibles is never a completely foolproof enterprise. Although there is no way to completely protect oneself in the marketplace, but by following a few basic guidelines an antique collector can heed the warning of “buyer beware” in a way that will significantly reduce the likelihood of bad decision making.

Antiques

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